Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

The Lambton Quay fire, 29 December 1885

page 191

The Lambton Quay fire, 29 December 1885

The Lambton Quay fire provides us with an opportunity for a brief look at the internal structure of one colonial town. Wellington (1886 population 25,945) had been shaped by the configurations of its site, and by its history, into several distinctive districts. The reports on the fire help us to see how the Quay's situation in the city shaped its character. Pioneer Wellington had consisted of two main residential areas, Thorndon and Te Aro, linked by the business and waterfront strip of Lambton Quay-Manners Street. Thorndon developed as the fashionable ‘establishment’ area while the Te Aro flat became a proletarian district of closely packed workers' cottages. As reclamation removed its waterfront role and created a new central business district across the street, old Lambton Quay continued as a jumble of primitive, low-rent wooden buildings, attracting small shopkeepers, tradesmen and craftsmen, and providers of accommodation and food. With a number of them living behind or above their premises, it retained an old-fashioned village flavour. Together with its Manners Street continuation it represented the city's main fire risk area—through the combination of close packed
Figure 13.2. Wellington, mid 1880s: Neighbourhoods adjoining Lambton Quay

Figure 13.2. Wellington, mid 1880s: Neighbourhoods adjoining Lambton Quay

page 192 wooden walls, a sprinkling of shingled roofs, and kitchen and craftsmen's fires. We have noted Lambton Quay's earlier fire in 1868; Manners Street was to have a notable fire in March 1879, destroying 30 buildings. It is not surprising that over the years the old west side of the Quay experienced more fires than the newer buildings on the reclamation, built to higher fire code standards.

Establishment Wellington with its parliament buildings, Government House, Premier's residence, cathedrals, and homes of leading merchants and civil servants, will have provided most of the Quay's more affluent customers. Thomas Myers's picture dealing and framing business will have depended heavily on the custom of fashionable Thorndon. Just before the fire he was able to advertise as ‘under the special patronage of His Excellency the Governor’.31 Other businesses for which a strategic proximity to Thorndon must have been important were Alexander Farmer's furniture workshop, William Spiller's music shop, Mrs Paul's dressmaking concern, and Fred Radford's photographer's rooms. One imagines that the Wellington Meat Preserving Co would have had a Thorndon round, for which its stables would have had a vehicle of appropriate smartness. In fact all of these concerns must have been given at least a little uplift by the influence of the good taste and more ample purses of Thorndon.

But the character of the west side of the Quay would also have been partly shaped by the rougher, sometimes roisterous, influence of its proletarian neighbours to the south. The bulk of the manual labour for the city and the busy waterfront came from close packed workers' cottages on the Te Aro flat. Tempering Te Aro's proletarian flavour were some middle class and upper working class folk—shopkeepers and smaller merchants, lesser public servants, tradesmen such as Archibald Whiteford, builder and fire brigade captain. Their homes were most numerous on the higher ground to the east, west and south of the flat. In keeping with its plebeian character, Te Aro had the city's gaol, its gasworks, its tramway sheds, its Salvation Army Barracks, and its most thriving ‘nonconformist’ congregations. From its earlier days in Manners Street, George Smart's Oyster Saloon may have been a popular Te Aro rendezvous on the Quay; it may indeed have been a place where folk of all classes would meet. Under landlord Thomas Urwin, the old British navy man-o’-warsman, the Branch Hotel would have been popular with seamen coming ashore at the nearby wharves, as well as with those with homes in Te Aro. The police support of Urwin at the Lambton Licensing Committee hearings suggests that they valued this old salt's influence on the seafarers attracted to his hostelry.

On the other side of the Quay, with a very different flavour, was the Occidental Hotel, whose barman had called the brigade to the fire. The Occidental was a stronghold of commercial travellers, whose wants, the page 193 Cyclopedia of New Zealand informs us, ‘are met by the eight fine sample-rooms which are attached to this popular house’.32 The old beachfront side of Lambton Quay will have been stimulated in many ways by the new reclamation Wellington which began across the street. Besides having the town's larger and more modern hotels it had the main offices of the chief banks and insurance offices, the offices and warehouses of the foremost merchants, the leading drapers, the Theatre Royal, and the new Supreme Court building. Leading merchants and retailers, warehousemen and insurers, shipping, railway and post and telegraph executives, judges and prima donnas, bankers and financiers, and their clerks, labourers and sales folk, mingled there in their daily work. They will frequently have come across to ‘the Beach’, the old western side of the Quay, on business or personal errands.

A lively contemporary description of Lambton Quay entitled ‘Down the Beach’ is given in one of a series of articles about Wellington by ‘Touchstone’ in the Wanganui Chronicle of 8 September 1885.

Much in the same manner as that learned dictionary maker, Dr. Samuel Johnson was wont to say to his friend Boswell, ‘come let us take a walk down Fleet-street’, does the average Wellingtonian recommend to the visitor … a stroll ‘down the beach’, in other words a walk along Wellington's longest, most important street, Lambton Quay.

‘Touchstone’ proceeds to describe Lambton Quay at various times of the day. Around 9 a.m. there is ‘a crowd of smart well-dressed men, young and old’ hurrying along to the government offices. Towards midday the Quay is populated by ‘ladies bent on shopping excursions, idlers “doing the block”, and the inevitable new chum gaping about in his usual helpless manner’. In the late afternoon ‘fashionable loungers’ appear in large numbers, to be joined about 5 by ‘a mighty exodus from the big buildings’. But

Saturday night is perhaps the time to see the Beach at its best and busiest. Then all Wellington seems to devote itself to the task of promenading up and down from Willis-street to Thorndon, and vice versa. To see the crowd on a fine Saturday night would make a stranger imagine he were in a city of ten times the size of Wellington, and it is not till long after 10 o'clock that the busy throng melts away into Te Aro and the suburbs.